“Choosing Your Stepping Stones”
Kids who are like me need the power of choice to help engage them in reading. Their choices are the stepping stones that lead to the path of engaged readers. They don’t just need a variety of stories to choose from; they also need the option to put a book down when it doesn’t interest them. Forcing myself to read something that doesn’t interest me is torture, but reading something that does interest me opens up my tastes, so that maybe one day a book I didn’t like before might actually be enjoyable later, when I am a slightly different person.
Reading has always been difficult for me. I don’t know why exactly. I know that my father has a difficult time reading, too. My mother and three sisters are “voracious” readers, and they are all well read. So I reckon there is something genetic involved.
As a child, I always wanted to read—I craved story just as much as any human being—but I couldn’t. I don’t mean that I couldn’t read (early testing deemed me an average, competent reader), I mean that I couldn’t stay engaged with the words on the page. I could look at illustrations and make up stories in my head, but I couldn’t bring myself to read the words.
I remember seeing books on our shelves that I wanted to read, like an herbal medicine guide, but no matter how many times I picked it up, I couldn’t engage with the words and retain the information. I grew up thinking I wasn’t very smart, and wishing I could read lots of books and become smarter.
I almost never finished the books assigned to me in school. I usually skimmed them, or asked friends before the test what I needed to know. Speaking out loud in front of people was a nightmare for me. Whenever a teacher asked me to read aloud in class my anxiety was so bad that I had no engagement with what I read whatsoever.
It wasn’t until fourth grade that I found my first stepping stone. We were assigned the book The Cay by Theodore Taylor. I loved the story. It was the first book I ever finished. Back then, I had no idea why the experience was different, but now as an adult I know exactly why. It’s an adventure story about survival. I love survival stories!
I still didn’t read assigned school books after that. However, I found my next stepping stone two summers later. I was home and extremely bored. There was a book that sat on the back of our toilet all of the time. I picked it up and read the whole thing cover to cover. It was a Calvin and Hobbes comic book. I fell in love with the series. I asked for more of the comics and got them for my birthday.
I still didn’t read the books assigned to me in school, and I rarely ever picked up books on my own. In high school, I remember reading The Amityville Horror and a romance novel, but that’s about it.
During college, a couple of important things happened. First, I started to suspect that I had the capacity to be smart in my own way. Second, my English 102 teacher assigned Octavia Butler’s book Dawn. It was my next stepping stone. I loved this book so much that I finished it and immediately went out and bought the second book of the series. Shortly after Butler’s books, I picked up Jean Auel’s Earth’s Children series. My tastes for fiction began forming a pattern.
My stepping stones turned into a walkable path when I moved to Puerto Rico after college to do field research. There wasn’t much to do after work. I could watch DVD’s but only at night because it was too hot to sit on the furniture during the day. All there was for me to do was read.
I read like a demon. My mother and sisters turned me on to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, which I ate right up. My tastes diversified the more I read. In school, I never read the Hemingway books assigned because they didn’t interest me at the time, but in Puerto Rico I loved reading A Moveable Feast and A Farewell to Arms. I also picked up nonfiction, like David Sedaris’ books, and various memoirs and biographies. After Puerto Rico, I didn’t read as much, but I still read a lot more than before I lived there.
To this day, reading is still difficult for me. I can blow through a book in a couple of days if the story grabs me, and grabs me fast. But there are countless books I have picked up and struggled through, eventually putting back down. I know that reading is much easier when I have a choice, and I don’t feel pressured to read the same way and the same amount as other people. When I do choose to read a good book that suits my current mood, I can’t put it down.
My novel, The Alchemist’s Theorem, is the book I wrote for my younger self. If I had come across this fantasy adventure full of weird creature companions as a kid, I would have gobbled it up. I hope that it will serve as a stepping stone for kids who are wired like me and need a good foothold as readers.
I think it’s important to give kids free-range when it comes to reading. How can an entire class like the same book and read it at the same pace? In that scenario, there are at least a couple of kids suffering through it. And even when you let them choose their own books, it’s probable that they won’t like the first one or two or three that they pick up. As a kid, I wish I received encouragement to keep trying. I should have kept picking up books and putting them down until one grabbed me. I think my stepping stones would have popped up sooner, getting me to my reading path quicker.
About the Author: Margaret graduated from the University at Buffalo in 2005 with her BA degree in anthropology. Afterward, she moved to Puerto Rico for a year where she spent the hot humid days following around free-range rhesus macaque monkeys. When the study finished, she went from one monkey job to the next, moving up and down the east coast for several years. Then she attempted a primatology graduate program in London, England, but developed an allergy to academia. Margaret dropped out and returned to the US and eventually went on to get her MFA in creative writing, graduating from the University of Washington Bothell in 2014. The Alchemist’s Theorem is her first novel. She lives in Seattle.
About The Alchemist’s Theorem: Sir Duffy’s Promise: An eccentric boy named Mendel and the alchemist Sir Duffy set out on a series of quests with their many weird and endearing creature companions–like Esther the snake-ish gusselsnuff and Gooder the big, lazy, carnivorous horse. These determined travelers must venture across the continent of Terra Copia, an exotic land where the species of flora and fauna in one forest are completely different from the next. It is up to them to safeguard secrets and dangerous artifacts from cagey enemies in order to prevent a terrifying curse from returning to their land.
The Alchemist’s Theorem published on November 6th and is now available.
Thank you to Margaret for this post!
We love the message that there is always hope when it comes to reading!